People with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have trouble communicating and interacting with others because they process language, facial expressions and social cues differently. Previously, researchers found that propranolol, a drug commonly used to treat high blood pressure, anxiety and panic, could improve the language abilities and social functioning of people with an ASD. Now, University of Missouri investigators say the prescription drug also could help improve the working memory abilities of individuals with autism.
Working memory represents individuals’ ability to hold and manipulate a small amount of information for a short period; it allows people to remember directions, complete puzzles and follow conversations. Neurologist David Beversdorf and research neuropsychologist Shawn Christ found that propranolol improves the working memory performance of people with an ASD.
“Seeing a tiger might signal a fight or flight response. Nowadays, a stressor such as taking an exam could generate the same response, which is not helpful,” said Beversdorf, an associate professor in the Departments of Radiology and Neurology in the MU School of Medicine. “Propranolol works by calming those nervous responses, which is why some people benefit from taking the drug to reduce anxiety.”
Propranolol increased working memory performance in a sample of 14 young adult patients of the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders but had little to no effect on a group of 13 study participants who do not have autism. The researchers do not recommend that doctors prescribe propranolol solely to improve working memory in individuals with an ASD, but patients who already take the prescription drug might benefit.
“People with an Autism Spectrum Disorder who are already being prescribed propranolol for a different reason, such as anxiety, might also see an improvement in working memory,” said Christ, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science.